Where do I start?
That’s my thought as I sit down to write this post, and it was also my thought when I sat down to plan a backpacking trip to Isle Royale with my boyfriend last year.
If you’ve never heard of Isle Royale National Park, it’s a large island in Lake Superior that measures 45 miles long and 9 miles wide. Historically, it contained mines and fisheries, but it no longer has permanent population. It is now a destination for backpackers, fishers, kayakers and nature-lovers.
With a total of 36 campgrounds across the island and little idea of the terrain we’d be facing, choosing a route was one of the biggest challenges in planning. While there are resources out there regarding distance between campgrounds along with brief descriptions, what I found most helpful was reading personal accounts and Googling the different campground so I could get an idea of what they looked like versus their location on a map.
After lots of research, we settled on a 32-mile round trip route that was mostly along the shore for two reasons: 1) We would always have access to Lake Superior to refill our water bottles, and 2) Unless you’re fishing, what’s the point of spending time at an inland lake when you’re on an island in the biggest lake in the world?! Though we varied a bit from the original schedule, we stuck to the intended campgrounds.
Without further ado, this is our personal account, and I hope this helps anyone looking into backpacking Isle Royale!
Day 0: Travel to Copper Harbor
I couldn’t justify counting this as an actual day of the trip, but we decided to drive up to Copper Harbor the night before heading to the island. (We are not morning people, yo.)
We started the adventure with a bang by taking a very, very chewed up dirt road to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It took us about an hour to drive the few miles, and we miraculously made it without popping a tire.
We found a spot to park among the few other campers and set up our sleeping bags in the bed of the truck. It was a couple days after the peak of a meteor shower that August, but they were so bright out there that I could see them even without my contacts – that’s saying something!
Day 1: Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm (7 miles)
Our first day of the trip was a long one. We woke up before sunrise and headed back into town to catch the ferry. We took the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor across the lake to Rock Harbor. The trip took about 3.5 hours as the lake was pretty rough, but the captain did a nice job navigating through it.
Once we arrived at the Rock Harbor Visitor Center, all of the backpackers were gathered for a quick orientation. Then we headed inside to report our anticipated itinerary and receive our camping permits. We made a quick stop at the last real bathroom (ha!) and hit the trail.
I purposely chose a route that would keep us near the shore, both for the fresh water source and the beauty. We made a quick detour to Suzy’s Cave and stopped for lunch down by the water. By the time we hit the first campground, Three Mile, we were feeling pretty tired and considered stopping early. However, we were unable to find an open shelter or tent site, so we decided to power through and get to our intended campsite, Daisy Farm.
Daisy Farm is one of the largest campgrounds on the island, and we were able to find an open tent site a few hundred feet from the water. We heated up water for dinner, stuffed our faces with chicken, couscous and veggies, and went to bed.
Day 2: Daisy Farm to Moskey Basin (4 miles)
We woke up the second morning with tired legs and second thoughts about our itinerary. The original plan was to hike nearly 10 miles to Chippewa Harbor, the closest campground that allows fires, but we decided to play the day by ear.
We hit the trail and headed toward Moskey Basin on our way to Chippewa Harbor, but the trail proved to be much more difficult that we anticipated. We were up on the ridge a bit, away from the shore, alternating climbing up rocks and down through wooded areas.
By the time we made it to Moskey Basin, we were definitely ready to be done hiking for the day and found a couple girls willing to share their shelter with us (thanks, ladies!). This campground was beautiful. Shelters were right on the water, and there was a long dock jutting out into the water. G took a nap on a rock by the water and I read for a bit and relaxed.
We had what turned out to by our favorite dinner of the trip – curry chicken with veggies and brown rice – and sat out on the dock to enjoy an amazing sunset. Sleeping in the shelter was a little chilly, but a lot less claustrophobic than a tent.
Day 3: Moskey Basin to Chippewa Harbor (6 miles)
When we woke up on the third morning, we seriously considered staying at Moskey Basin for another day instead of traveling farther away from Rock Harbor. In the end, we sucked it up and took off to Chippewa Harbor so we could take advantage of the fire pit and seclusion.
Although it was long with some challenging sections, I loved this part of the hike. It felt like we were in the middle of the jungle, and we only passed a couple people throughout the day. We saw fresh moose tracks (it’s hard to write that and not think of ice cream) as big as my hand. I’m convinced that we would’ve seen a moose if we could’ve had our eyes set on the woods the whole time we were hiking, but the hike was a little too technical (read: ankle rollable) to not pay attention to the trail.
Chippewa Harbor was the first campground where we didn’t have to hunt for a tent site or share a shelter. There were only two other groups there, so we had our pick of shelters. The shelters are covered with graffiti inside, and we actually found the names of several of G’s nieces and nephews who took a boat to camp at the harbor years ago.
That evening, G made a fire in the pit outside our shelter so we could cook dinner and roast s’mores.
Day 4: Chippewa Harbor to Daisy Farm (10 miles)
It rained a bit overnight, so we changed into our rain gear that morning and put our clothing in trash bags to protect from any rain along the way. While G went down to the harbor and got a weather report from a couple sailors, I went off into the woods to find this old schoolhouse. There was a small bench inside for students and a sign that explained the schoolhouse was used for the children of resident fishermen.
With a long day ahead, we took off to Daisy Farm. We made it a little more than halfway before the rain started … and it didn’t stop the rest of the way. There were periods of downpours so hard, there was nothing to do but laugh. We managed to only get off track once and only had one fall on the slippery rocks (me, obviously).
It was just getting dark out when we arrived at Daisy Farm, and all of the shelters and individual tent sites were taken at that point. A man led us to the group site where he was set up with a few others, and we got settled in for a rainy night. Despite it being a long and miserable day, we were glad to be on the tail end of the trip instead of starting out soaking wet.
Day 5: Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor (7 miles)
We took off early the next morning so we could make it to Rock Harbor in plenty of time to catch the ferry back to Rock Harbor. The hike seemed to go very quickly compared to the first day, but I was probably just excited to get some dry socks and fresh food.
We made it back to Rock Harbor with frizzy hair (well, at least I did) and a couple hours to spare. We checked back in at the visitor center, where we reported our actual route compared to our itinerary. It was lunch time, so we went over to the lodge for burgers and beer, which tasted amazing after several days of dehydrated meat and rice.
The ferry ride home was rough again, but we found a great ledge out on the deck that protected us from the wind. When we made it back to Copper Harbor and the ferry blew its horn, the servers from one of the restaurants ran outside and did a little dance to welcome us home. We stopped in the gift shop and grabbed a couple souvenirs, including a pair of warm socks for me. Hallelujah.
We grabbed dinner at the Harbor Haus, and it was incredible (not just because we hungry). Then we grabbed a hotel room for the night in Houghton, where we each took a long shower and changed into clean, dry clothes.
And that concluded our trip! In short, we would do it again but would prefer to take a water taxi out to one of the more remote locations like Chippewa Harbor. Having to battle it out for a tent site or share a shelter took away from the experience of being isolated on an island.
It was exhausting and challenging, but the breathtaking scenery and tranquility made for an unforgettable experience overall.
Looking for more backpacking info? Check out my post on my 12 Backpacking Gear Essentials, and stay tuned for Things I Wish I Had Known Before Backpacking Isle Royale and my 5 Day Backpacking Menu.